Face fatigue: Staring at yourself during video chats may put you in a bad mood

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If you’re about to hop on a Zoom call, it’s best to avoid staring at your own face too much. Also, don’t drink beforehand. Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign report staring at yourself during video chats may just put you in a bad mood – and consuming alcohol intensifies the issue.

The new study finds that the more a person stars at themselves while talking in an online chat, the more their mood will worsen over the course of the video conference. Study authors believe their findings indicate a troublesome connection between online meeting platforms and psychological issues such as depression or anxiety.

“We used eye-tracking technology to examine the relationship between mood, alcohol and attentional focus during virtual social interaction,” says Talia Ariss, a doctoral candidate who led the research with U of I psychology professor Catharine Fairbairn, in a university release. “We found that participants who spent more time looking at themselves during the conversation felt worse after the call, even after controlling for pre-interaction negative mood. And those who were under the influence of alcohol spent more time looking at themselves.”

This study adds further credence to earlier research that suggests people who focus more on themselves than on the world around them, particularly during social interactions, may be more susceptible to mood disorders than others.

“The more self-focused a person is, the more likely they are to report feeling emotions that are consistent with things like anxiety and even depression,” Ariss adds.

Video chatting skyrocketed during COVID

“Users of the online video call platform Zoom increased 30-fold during the pandemic – burgeoning from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million by April 2020,” researchers write. “The pandemic has yielded a surge in levels of depression and anxiety and, given reports of heightened self-awareness and ‘fatigue’ during virtual exchange, some have posited a role for virtual interaction in exacerbating such trends.”

Before and after the video chats, each study participant answered a series of questions about how they were feeling emotionally. During the video calls, each person had to discuss their local neighborhoods and musical preferences.

Importantly, the participants could clearly see themselves and their conversation partners on a split-screen monitor. Some drunk alcohol before the call. Generally, participants looked at their partners much more often than themselves. However, the amount of time they spent looking at themselves varied greatly from person to person.

“The cool thing about virtual social interactions, especially in platforms like Zoom, is that you can simulate the experience of looking in a mirror,” Ariss comments.

What happens when you drink on a Zoom call?

Adding alcohol to the mix allowed researchers to investigate how mild inebriation affects visual attention.

“In the context of in-person social interactions, there is strong evidence that alcohol acts as a social lubricant among drinkers and has these mood-enhancing properties,” Ariss explains. “This did not hold true, however, in the online conversations, where alcohol consumption corresponded to more self-focus and had none of its typical mood-boosting effects.”

“At this point in the pandemic, many of us have come to the realization that virtual interactions just aren’t the same as face-to-face,” Prof. Fairbairn concludes. “A lot of folks are struggling with fatigue and melancholy after a full day of Zoom meetings. Our work suggests the self-view offered in many online video platforms might make those interactions more of a slog than they need to be.”

The study is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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